Book Review: What a Way to Go

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What a Way to Go, by Julia Forster, starts off as a bittersweet, humorous tale of life as a child of divorced parents. Set in 1988 it softens the harsh reality of loneliness and judgemental neighbours with insight and nostalgia. It is perceptive yet gentle in its representations of the prejudices of the time.

As the story progresses the layers are peeled away to reveal the secrets that have shaped each of the adults’ lives. In amongst the bad hair and worse dress sense are stories of poor decisions, wasted potential and private grief. Situations are rarely as straightforward as they first appear.

The protagonist is twelve year old Harper Richardson. First impressions are of childish naivete but she is precocious in her thoughts. Harper accepts that her mother is trying to find a new husband, helping out when she can to drive unsuitable candidates away. Every other weekend she visits her father in the small village where she was born. The only friend she has here is an elderly neighbour who her mother deplores.

Harper has a best friend, Cassie, whose family are the antithesis to Harper’s. Their clean and tidy lives could be held up as the standard to which others should aspire. Where Harper faces chaos, Cassie encounters order. Both represent problems that the girls must overcome.

The story is lightly told with a few gaping plot holes and questionable realities that are filled in and explained as the layers of the parents’ lives are revealed. There is much there to frown upon, and many have done just that. Harper must deal with revelations and loss at a time when she is seeking out her own direction. The structure of her day to day life may be shoddily constructed but the foundations are shown to be firm.

A nicely written tale that makes good use of plot development to highlight what is important in life. Harper is a fabulous character coping with the hand she has been dealt as best she can. The supporting cast enable the author to raise the many issues with grace and discernment. There is nothing heavy in the writing but what is explored will linger, as all good stories should.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Book Review: Only We Know

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Only We Know, by Karen Perry, tells the story of three childhood friends who harbour a dreadful secret. They were complicit in the death of another child, but what exactly happened must on no account be shared. Their parents, now dead, made them promise never to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. The guilt they carry has haunted them for more than thirty years.

The story opens in Kenya, in the summer of 1982. Eight year old Katie has befriended Luke and Nick, the similarly aged sons of her mother’s friend who they have spent the summer with. Before they return home to Ireland a three day safari to the Masai Mara is arranged. On the last day, as the children play by a river close to the families’ campsite, a tragedy unfolds.

The story jumps to 2013. Katie is a journalist and has been asked to write about Luke, now a successful businessman who has recently captured the public’s interest. Katie has seen little of him over the years, a state encouraged by their parents. Whilst at university Katie briefly rekindled her friendship with Nick, but he has now returned to Nairobi where he plays piano in the clubs and bars.

The tale is told from each of the protagonists point of view, moving between 1982 and 2013. On several key points the reader is led to think one thing only to have it revealed as incorrect. This is clever but somewhat confusing at times.

The slow reveal of what happened on that day by the river is well done, with the impact of the parents’ actions shown to be the catalyst for subsequent events. I did question why, as they matured, the childhood trio didn’t challenge the continued need for secrecy, but am aware that family foibles and feelings can be a tricky minefield to navigate.

In both time periods the development of the characters was believable, their flaws recognisable and sympathetically presented. The denouement, however, stretched this and felt somewhat contrived.

It is a slickly written tale with a compelling plot that I read easily in a day. Looking back though I am left feeling somewhat ambivalent. I suspect it is a book that would be enjoyed most by fans of classic whodunnits. Personally, I prefer a little more depth and challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Book Review: The Glass Painter’s Daughter

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The Glass Painter’s Daughter, by Rachel Hore, tells two interwoven stories set over a century apart. Each is written in a very different style. Much as I dislike the limitations imposed on a book by assigning it a genre, the modern section read like an easy romance, not the sort of tale I choose to read as I tend to find such books two dimensional. The historical section was more to my taste and I enjoyed it, but not enough to redeem the whole.

Set in the 1990’s, the modern section tells the story of Fran, a professional tuba player who is obliged to return home when her estranged father suffers a catastrophic stroke. We learn that Fran never knew her mother who died when she was young, and that she was raised by her father in a flat above Minster Glass, the stained glass shop which her family have owned and run for generations.

Fran’s father has a talented assistant at the shop, Zac. He is a quiet and reliable friend to Fran, especially after she is hurt by the self absorbed Ben, another musician she meets at choir. Along the way Zac and Fran help out Amber from the homeless hostel, a young girl who has had a tough start in life but who comes good when given the opportunity. Although their tale is nicely told I found the characters shallow.

Of interest was the author’s choice to set the story before mass use of internet and social media. She commented on this saying:

“Because of the gothic claustrophobia I wished to create I couldn’t have modern media”

It is easy to forget how these days it is easy to research people on line and to keep in touch, that this instant access is a recent phenomenon.

Zac, Fran and Amber are working to restore a stained glass window that has recently been discovered in a nearby church. The window, depicting an angel, provides the link to the historical element of the book. The protagonist of this section, Laura, is the daughter of the church vicar in the late nineteenth century. Laura’s family are mourning the loss of their son and daughter, Ned and Caroline. Another daughter is married and expecting her first child leaving Laura to support her grieving parents.

Laura also has love interests: Anthony Bond, the solid and upright churchwarden of whom her family approve; and Philip Russell, a man with an estranged wife who is commissioned to create two stained glass windows for the church on behalf of Minster Glass.

There are obvious parallels between the life experiences of Fran and Laura. There are also a great many angel references, something which other readers warmed to but which I found a little too much at times.

I was sent this book to review as a member of the Curtis Brown Book Group so had the privilege of asking the author about the variations in the way she wrote the two stories. My question was:

“Fran’s story seems to be written in quite a different style to Laura’s. I wondered if this was deliberate, if you were trying to tell the modern story in a modern style and the historical story in a period style?”

Rachel replied:

“It is deliberate, yes, and your explanation is bang on the nail! It just is a question of imagining the sensibilities of the characters in the different eras.”
I then asked:
“Some readers choose books because they like a certain type of writing. Were you at all concerned about mixing it up in this way?”
Rachel replied:
“It worked for me, Jackie, so I had to hope it did for the readers. I find that I can’t write while thinking about the readers because there are so many different reactions from people and it can be muddling. The place one is in psychologically while writing is a very secret one. It’s the editing process that draws in the editor (and the writer as self-editor) in the role of reader.”

I found this answer insightful. My reaction to the modern story may be critical, but only because of my personal preferences as a reader. From the discussion it was clear that others thoroughly enjoyed the author’s approach.

I believe I was put off this book early on when Laura peeked into her dead sister Caroline’s bedroom and noted the possessions still there, included a teddy bear. Caroline died in 1878 yet teddy bears became popular after 1902 following a bear hunting incident involving American president, Theodore Roosevelt. As an arctophile, this grated. Later in the story a window at Minster Glass is broken by vandals, and glaziers are called to mend it. I wondered why a shop trading in fancy windows could not replace a simple pane of glass themselves.

I considered too much detail was glossed over: failing to name other choirs at the time, referring to them simply as ‘well known’; the vicar’s lost glasses being found ‘in the obvious place’ which went unspecified. The homilies from the vicar as he gave well meaning advice seemed overly religious. I accept that he was a vicar so this was in character, but found it challenging to read.

I did enjoy the ending, which took us back to Laura’s story and worked well.

I guess I prefer my mysteries to be a little more subtle. I found this tale predictable with just the occasional unexpected event thrown in, rarely altering the outcome.

I like to read eclectically and this was not a typical book for me. Whilst I recognise that many others enjoy the genre, I will not be adding further romantic fiction to my TBR pile.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Book Review: A Better Man

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A Better Man, by Leah McLaren, is a story about a couple who have drifted apart after the birth of their twins. From being two highly paid professionals who devote the majority of their non working hours to each other, they have become virtual strangers who just happen to live under the same roof. There are insights which any parent of a young child can relate to, although it is written in an unchallenging way which will not appeal to all. This is easy reading but with added humour and poignancy.

Maya Wakefield is a stay at home mum with a nanny to help her care for her toddler twins and their comfortable home. Unlike any nanny I have known, Velma is willing to act as cook, cleaner and counsellor as well as providing childcare. Maya also has a therapist and a personal trainer, an expensive hair stylist and a wardrobe of immaculate clothes. None of it makes her happy.

As Maya worries over the exact ingredients of the foods her children ingest, continues to breastfeed and share a bed with her offspring – an arrangement which has driven her husband to sleep in another room – she nurses a dull awareness that even when he is there in body, his mind is elsewhere. She knows that he has stopped loving her. Maya gave up a successful career as a family lawyer to care for her children and now devotes the energy and attention to detail that her job demanded, to raising them in the way that her parenting books and magazines instruct.

Maya’s husband Nick feels incompetent around his children and irrelevant to his wife. As the co-owner of a successful advertising agency he works long hours and is admired by his staff. He flirts with many of the young women and questions why he should not allow himself to take things further. He is unsure how his marriage went so badly wrong but he has had enough; he wants a divorce.

The problem is that a divorce is going to cost him all of the lovely things that he has worked so hard to acquire. Despite recognising that they are mere baubles he is unwilling to give them up. His wife is their children’s primary carer so would get the family home, and he would be required to keep her in the manner to which she has become accustomed.

I found this quite hard to believe. The children have a nanny so there seemed little reason why Maya wouldn’t have been expected to return to work if Nick and she divorced. She has an impressive career track record and has not been out of work for so very long. However, the legal advice that Nick is given is that if he wishes to minimise his financial liabilities then he needs to become a better husband. He needs to help Maya with the children and encourage her to return to work. He also needs to make her like him again, that the divorce may have a better chance of proceeding amicably.

The main plot looks at how Nick goes about enacting this plan, and then how Maya finds out what he is up to and reacts. There are few surprises but it is nicely written with a pleasing flow. In many ways Nick does Maya a favour by snapping her out of her obsessive perfection parenting. Given the way she is presented to the reader I was rather surprised by just how far in the other direction she went.

I prefer a little more depth to characters, but do not wish to pick holes when I suspect that this was never intended to be that kind of book. This is a nicely constructed and effortless read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets

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The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon, is simmering, evocative and charged with an undercurrent of apprehension. The author perfectly captures the concerns of the teenage protagonist, Helen, as she struggles to deal with her parents’ separation and rejection by her peers. When the bohemian Dover family appear on Helen’s doorstep it is no surprise that she is drawn to them. Their friendship will prove devastating for both families.

Helen is sixteen years old and is looking forward to a summer of peace and freedom. Home life has been chaotic since her mother left, her father seeking solace in drink. Helen welcomes the cessation of their bitter rows, and the relaxation of her mother’s strictly imposed orderliness. She is angry and lonely but also relieved.

Lying on the grass in her garden by the canal Helen wonders how she will fill the balmy days ahead. Her question is answered when a young girl unexpectedly appears in her hedge. Thus she meets the Dovers, who she discovers have recently moved into a nearby cottage, and is drawn to their enigmatic lives.

Victoria Dover is of a similar age to Helen and they soon become friends. They are not, however, equals. Victoria relishes her dominance, forever pushing at Helen’s trained reticence. As the summer progresses Helen ingratiates herself with the whole family before Victoria starts to push her away.

The author intersperses the story of the summer of 1983 with a narrative set thirty years later. Forty-six year old Helen spots a poster on the wall of new art gallery advertising an exhibition of photographs by award winning Victoria Dover. We learn that she has neither seen nor heard from any of the Dover family since that fateful summer, a summer that has scarred her life.

Helen’s life pivots on a night near the end of the summer, which she can barely remember. As the tension builds the reader knows that some tragedy is about to unfold. The denouement does not disappoint.

The byline on the cover of this book reads ‘One day she was there… And the next she was gone’. I did not feel that this represented what the story was about. It is a coming of age tale; it was not just Victoria that Helen lost.

It was good to be reminded that in 1983 there could be ramshackle cottages by an overgrown and neglected canal, before developers saw potential and tidied nature away. Likewise children could run free, time unfilled by planned activities not viewed as wasted. It is redolent of a time that is gone.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed, shocking as they were. I do not quite understand why she did not seek answers sooner. Perhaps this is the point. The denouement suggests that it was everyone else’s selfish inability to understand Helen’s needs which led to the cataclysmic outcome.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group